Ramon Espinosa / AP
MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Ignoring widespread calls from members of his own party, business leaders, and human rights groups, President Donald Trump will announce a rollback of some of the Cuba-friendly policies undertaken by his predecessor, White House officials said Thursday.
US citizens will no longer be able to engage in individual leisure travel to Cuba, the officials said. The US government will also ensure that no profits from American businesses benefit Cuba's military.
"The new policy going forward does not target the Cuban people but it does target the repressive members of the Cuban military government," a senior administration official told reporters during a briefing ahead of the announcement.
Trump is scheduled to appear in Miami on Friday to officially announce the shift.
The rapprochement with Cuba saw the US reestablish ties with the communist government following more than 50 years of enmity, using executive orders to reopen the US Embassy in Havana, lift many restrictions on US citizens traveling to Cuba, and allow for US companies to invest in the island. In defending the rollback, officials cited the regime's repression — including holding political prisoners and the lack of free and fair elections — as why curtailing the measures implemented under then-president Barack Obama in 2015 was necessary.
But human rights advocates derided Trump’s decision as hypocritical.
"We’re willing to sword dance with the Saudis and praise the Philippines dictator,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a civil coalition against the travel and trade embargo. “This is the least concerned administration with human rights," he added.
Some Republican lawmakers, American professors, US agricultural leaders, and Cuban exiles had urged Trump to maintain the opening with the communist-led island. Many of them argued that Obama’s policies had helped create jobs in the US while improving living conditions for ordinary Cubans.
Cuban hosts affiliated with Airbnb, for example, received $40 million since April 2015 from approximately 560,000 guests, according to a report the company released last week. Internet connectivity in public spaces grew after Google signed a deal with the state-run telecommunications company Etecsa. US air and cruise lines added Cuba to their portfolio of destinations.
President Donald Trump and Senator Marco Rubio
Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty Images
A report by Engage Cuba estimated that rollbacks could affect 12,295 jobs in the US and cost $6.6 billion during Trump’s term. “It seems like he’s been sold a bag of goods that [go] directly against his America First policy," said Williams.
The measures may not turn out to be as strict as some analysts and members of the business community feared — but they are likely to add a layer of confusion that could dissuade hundreds of US citizens from investing in Cuba.
Some observers said that Trump’s rollbacks were intended to pay a political debt, rather than address concerns with the rights of Cubans.
“Human rights is being used as an excuse and a pretext for making good on a campaign promise and satisfying Marco Rubio and Mario Diaz-Balart,” said Marguerite Jimenez, senior associate for the Washington Office on Latin America. Her theory was echoed by others in the business community.
Rubio and Diaz-Balart, both Florida lawmakers and sons of Cuban immigrants, have strong Cuban-American constituencies.
Human rights groups questioned Trump credibility on the subject, noting the administration’s growing rapport with authoritarian leaders in Egypt and Turkey, calling the rollbacks a mistake.
“So the question is, what makes you think that going back to the same policy that has failed, you will have a different result?” José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division, said. He added that isolating Cuba again allowed the island’s government to present itself as a victim, ironically enough taking the focus away from human rights violations.
Supporters of Trump’s rollbacks argued that the biggest winner of the opening has been the Cuban military, which has received a large portion of the tourism-related revenues under Obama policy.
“A defensible US Cuba policy is one that supports the Cuban people with as little support to the regime as possible,” said Jose R. Cardenas, former USAID acting assistant administrator for Latin America, in an opinion piece in Foreign Policy. Cardenas admitted that “the line between ordinary Cubans and the regime is impossible to discern.”
The largest project since the US opening, the Gran Hotel Manzana La Habana Kempinski, the island’s first five-star lodging, is operated by a Geneva-based hotel group under a contract with Grupo de Turismo Gaviota, a tourism conglomerate run by Cuba’s military.
A letter from 55 Cuban female entrepreneurs expressed hopes that there was still one person in the administration who could help keep the Obama-era policies intact: Ivanka Trump. Addressing the president’s daughter and close adviser, the women warned that a rollback would deal a deadly blow to the boutique hotels, shops, and restaurants that many of them had opened recently.
“Come to Cuba and get to know our companies, which we have built with our own efforts and that make us prouder by the day,” the women wrote.